Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Chinese food will be much better 20 years from now

A sad day for Singapore noodles

I was in the mood for Singapore noodles.

So now I find myself, the only customer, in a little Chinese/Vietnamese restaurant in the Heights. The noodles are prepared indifferently. The texture is too thick, a little oily. The noodles are supplemented by bland steamed chicken breast and pork. The dish is sadly lacking in curry.

I am overcome with the conviction that something is terribly wrong with American Chinese food.

A mere shadow of Chinese cuisine

I am not the first to make this complaint. Last summer Nina and Tim Zagat -- the restaurant guide couple -- wrote a wonderful op-ed piece about the problem. As the Zagats confirm, "Chinese food in its native land is vastly superior to what's available here."

I have heard that China, along with France and Italy, has one of the world's top three cuisines. Supposedly, Chinese food is remarkably varied. Allegedly, China's cuisine is unrivaled in its flavorful ingredients and creative techniques.

But you would not know any of that from eating Chinese food in Houston. Menus are standardized, with the same inauthentic dishes: General Joe's Chicken, sweet and sour pork, sesame chicken. Almost all dishes are steamed, stir-fried, or deep fried with batter, American-style. Sauces have too much sugar and oil. The food is anything but authentic, catering to American tastes. Houston's Chinese menus do not give even a glimpse of the diversity of dishes and techniques that are available in China and Taiwan.

Although China is supposed to be the jewel of Asian cuisine, Houston has much better restaurants with the food of India (Indika) and Japan (Nippon, Kubo's, Blue Fin).

A little hope

Of Houston's 400 Chinese restaurants, there are a few glimmers of hope:

-Fung's Kitchen has a broader, more authentic menu than most Houston Chinese restaurants, with a focus on Hong Kong-style seafood. Most dishes are very good.

-Daniel Wong's is not high cuisine, but is a quirky blend of standard Chinese recipes with a Houston twist.

-The pan-Asian bistro explosion is bringing some interesting Chinese flavors at stylish, inexpensive restaurants like Mak Chin's and Rattan.

-You can get some interesting cheap Chinese food at some of Houston's dumpling houses, like Doozo, Dumpling King, and Santong Snacks.

As my Singapore noodles start to get cold, I find myself staring at the rain. My mind starts to wander . . .

20 years from now

On January, 1 2028, a new Chinese restaurant has opened in Houston's very upscale Sharpstown area.

The chef is in her late 30s and has trained in some of the top restaurants in Beijing and Taipei. She has surrounded herself with skilled and creative younger Chinese and American chefs who actively participate in the creation of the nightly changing tasting menu.

The restaurant has three sommeliers and a wine list with over 600 wines. Each wine listing includes a description of the Chinese flavors with which it pairs well. The list has no California Cabernet Sauvignon. It does, however, include a number of wines and liquors imported from China. The sommeliers gladly suggest by-the-glass wines to go with the tasting menu.

The restaurant's elegant design highlights the kitchen by raising it on a stage-like platform in the center of the restaurant and surrounding it with glass so that it is visible from every chair in the restaurant. The design of the tables, chairs, and fabrics is warm and colorful with hues of black, red, and green.

The central location of the kitchen allows chefs to quickly carry dishes to tables only steps away as they are finished -- to preserve the "breath of the wok."

The food is as good as the best restaurants in China. It is firmly-rooted in Chinese techniques. Yet the chefs use the tradition as a springboard for new flavors, often created with local ingredients from the dozens of daily farmer's markets in Houston.

The restaurant also includes a large bar with a separate menu of less-expensive, small-bite dishes sold a la carte.

Finally, Houston has a world-class Chinese restaurant.

And sometimes they serve a killer version of Singapore noodles.


Anonymous said...

Go forth to Bellaire and the Beltway, there lies the authentic Chinese food you seek.

Anonymous said...

Hi guys,

I run the restaurant search site Urbanspoon and we've recently started covering Houston. I wanted to introduce you to the site. I would have sent mail directly but I couldn't track down your addresses.

We pull together restaurant reviews from the newspaper critics (Houston Chronicle, Houston Press, etc) as well as reviews from food bloggers. For example, here's our page on Fung's Kitchen:

One of the main things we're trying to do is to help people find out what bloggers have to say about restaurants. I was wondering if you would be interested in showing your restaurant reviews on Urbanspoon. Users will see a teaser of your review on our site, and we show a link to click through to your blog and read the full review.

For instance, if you wanted to add your post on your meal at Fung's Kitchen, here's a page that explains how it works:

In any case, I like your blog and I wanted to say hello! We're just getting started in Houston -- any feedback you have is much appreciated.

By the way, I agree about the Chinese food situation in the US. I've had pretty good chinese food in the bay area, but it's hard to find elsewhere.



Anonymous said...

I agree in general that Americanized version of Chinese food isn't all that good. Many restaurants have an off-menu where customers can ask for particular Chinese dishes that are more authentic. Those menus are often in Chinese though. Fung's Kitchen is a very good place, but how come you didn't visit Chinatown Chinese restaurants? Also, have you ever tried Chinese food in other cities (excluding LA, SF, and NYC)? I think Houston offers a much better variety and selection of restaurants, including Chinese.

Anonymous said...

i agree with post #1. I've enjoyed your blog for a very long time and I am really disappointed that you would make such a dismissive statement of Asian food in Houston, especially if you haven't done your research.

As a native Houston Chinese,
Houston is a treasure trove of amazing authentic Asian (not just Chinese) food - you are just not looking in the right places and I'm appalled that no one has pointed you in the right direction.

The Bellaire area is bursting with new complex after new complex of restaurants- I cannot even begin to keep up with it. Its been a long time since I had to resort to a typical Americanized Chinese restaurant.

This is a great resource for you:

I'd be happy to share my list of old favorites if you'd like as well.

Anonymous said...

Yes, Houston already has great authentic and complex Chinese cuisine restaurants. And the same goes for Japanese, Vietnamese, and other Asian cuisines. Most all of these places are out West down Bellaire. Their number increases much faster than any one person can try but there isn't much information openly available reviewing or investigating these restaurants.

I do my best but there can be a language and food familiarity problem in ordering. But if you are patient (and open to trying anything), those problems don't prevent you from finding the good stuff.

We need a reviewer or publication to do with our awesome Asian restaurants what Robb Walsh does with our super-great Hispanic restaurants. I'll start with recommending East Wall just inside the beltway on the south side of Bellaire...delicious!

anonymouseater said...

Interesting comments. I have a few additional thoughts:

I do go to Bellaire and the Beltway, and I eat in a lot of authentic mom and pop restaurants that serve dumplings and noodles and hot pots and Chinese barbeque, plus some pretty good dim sum.
My real criticism, like the Zagats, is that I know of no really great high cuisine Chinese restaurants in Houston. I often read about absolutely incredible high cuisine meals in Taipei and Beijing. Yet I have not seen anything that comes remotely close to that food in Houston.

I am not dismissive of Asian food in Houston. In my original post, I talked about what great Indian and Japanese restaurants we have. We have incredible Vietnamese food and some pretty good Thai food. Plus, we have some decent, authentic cheap Chinese.

But the real question that I intended my column to pose is this: Can anyone name me one restaurant in Houston that does for Chinese food what Indika does for Indian food? If not, why not?

If I am missing that restaurant, I beg you -- please tell me where I can find it.

Anonymous said...

I see what your intended meaning was. You want trendy, cutting-edge sumptuous Chinese cuisine. Re-reading your post, it was really hard to figure that out-it sounded more like Houston seemed a veritable ghost-town when it came to "authentic" Chinese food.

Yes, then I would honestly say that Houston is lacking this high-end Chinese cuisine. I suppose its the audience to which the Chinatown caters to. You would be hard-pressed to find any working-class Chinese that would pay a ridiculously high price for that kind of meal when we could just swing by our hole in the walls and eat our comfort food. This must be a cultural difference perhaps.

Its not about the price tag or the "special" ingredients. Expensive does not necessarily equal quality in our minds. Good Chinese food doesn't have to be eaten in a fancy dining room or in a fusion bistro- it could be the most simple, traditional unadorned dish that evokes memories of home (as one of my recent friends said about rice porridge) that could be the "perfect meal."

anyway, please keep up the good work. you are still one of the best Houston food blogs around.
and maybe try
KL Malaysian restaurant or Malay Bistro.
The Malaysian food is amazing here and perhaps they may have better Singapore noodles.

Anonymous said...

Arco Seafood Restaurant on Bellaire Boulevard serves authentic and fresh Cantonese style seafood. Highly recommended.

slinfinite said...

as a native houstonian chinese foodie, i have to agree with u - there is no upscale chinese restaurant in this town... there is however lots of new trendy "fast food" taiwanese/hk restaurants popping up on bellaire (like Cafe 101).

Fung's is probably the best "higher end" place for chinese food... but what houston does have is high end seafood restaurants - mostly cantonese - at places like Ocean Palace and Singh Singh where u can get live Australian Crystal Crab ($20-$50/lb) and various breeds of live fish steamed to perfection...

so skip out on the service and decor and drop some $$$ on some live seafood...

Anonymous said...

Go to Peking Cuisine. Look, it's cheap and in a sketchy strip mall, but its Peking duck is better than any I've had in Taipei or Beijing, even Quanjude which has been open for 150 years...which seems silly, but you know what they say about success and restaurants